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July 14, 2011 16:55:21 | in Cusco

Party in Paucartambo: Highland festival in Peru

The festival of the Virgen del Carmen in Paucartambo, Peru. See slide show.

By Marie Meyer

One sunny Lima day, over lunch, my friend Alicia mentions that her husband Ernesto is from the town of Paucartambo in Cusco province, and that he is getting reading to dance in “The Festival” again this July, at about the same time that my family and I will be visiting Machu Picchu and Cusco.

“The Festival?”

Alicia knows I’ve not lived in Peru very long, so she explains that Paucartambo hosts one of the biggest and best street parties in the world, attracting tens of thousands of people to the remote little Andean town each year. The elaborate and outlandish street parades of the “Mamacha del Carmen” festival feature many well-loved characters such as the “doctorcitos” (little doctors), “saqra” (devils or demons), and the “qoyacha” (little queens), amongst many more.

She says I should think “outrageous masks and costumes! Eye-popping fireworks!”, and recommends my family and I go to Paucartambo during our upcoming visit to the Sacred Valley to experience some of the fervent religious devotion, the thunderous music, and all-night dancing.

I am almost a complete teetotaler; not of the Catholic faith, and haven’t danced through the night since my kids were born more than a decade ago.

So of course I am instantly intrigued, and simply have to learn more:

Alicia, so what is this “Festival de Virgen del Carmen”?

People in Catholic countries all over the world celebrate the feast day of “Our Lady of Mount Carmel”, one of several invocations of the Virgin Mary (in Spanish the “Virgen del Carmen”) on Saturday, July 16 every year. Here in Peru the town of Paucartambo has taken this annual celebration to a whole new level. The colorful four day celebration, from July the 15th until July 18th, is a much-beloved part of Peru’s cultural heritage. The image of the “Virgen del Carmen” used in the Paucartambo procession was blessed by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Peru in 1985.
A dancer at the festival (Photo: Alicia Romero)
See slide show.

Ernesto, how long have you been a dancer?

I sometimes feel like I have been dancing since I was a baby in my mother’s belly… but my first dance festival was in 1982 and I have now been going for 29 years. As a child I waited eagerly every year to dance in the Festival, and I still take every opportunity I can to dance the contradance (the “contradanza” is a type of partnered folk dance danced in one form or another in many parts of the world).

What is your family’s involvement in the festival in Paucartambo every year?

You can say it is now a family affair. We go to Paucartambo to say thanks the Lady of Carmen for all the blessings we have received through the year, and to ask for health and prosperity in the year ahead. When I first took Alicia to the festival, she was floored by the amazing devotion of the worshippers and the colorful spectacle. My 18-year old son danced in the festival for the first time when he was 3-years old and is now also a participant in the contradance.

What do you love so much about this festival?

The devotion of the attendees is contagious, and I love to breathe the air of excitement during the festivities. It is also a reunion with my family, and we get to share the positive and negative experiences of the past year. We also offer our collective prayers or help where help is needed. For people born in Paucartambo it is a huge family reunion, and in effect the start of our “New Year”. I love the traditions around it all.

So, what happens during the festival?

The different dance troupes are organized around a theme or character by a steward or "Carguyoc" and his or her helpers, whose job it is to make sure the troupe has enough dancers, have costumes and musicians, and that there is money to pay all the necessary costs.

Anyway, the first parade will begin around noon on the Friday, July 15, and the party is on! Music and dancing, the street is filled with troupe after troupe of colorful characters telling a story as they make their way to the cathedral for the "Cera Apaykuy" ceremony. This is when the festival officials move candles and other holy symbols to decorate the altar of “Mamacha del Carmen”.

That night a huge bonfire is lit with lots of fireworks. The party will continue almost through the night, or at least until the early hours of the next day.

The celebrations on Saturday, July 16 will start with Catholic Masses that is held every hour until the most important one at 10AM. At its’ conclusion there is a parade with more dancing and beautiful music, and the “bosque” ceremony where food and gifts are shared and clowning about by the “Q'apac Q'ollas.” The very important procession of the “Virgen del Carmen” starts after lunch.

Most Peruvians will be very familiar with the drama of the processions, for example that the dance troupes of the "Capac Chuncho" and the "Capac Negro" have the privilege of being around the “Virgen del Carmen” but the “sagras” (devils) must follow the procession from the rooftops and balconies and cover their faces in shame when the procession passes close to them.

On Sunday, July 17 masses will again be held every hour, and afterwards the processions go to the cemetery to honor the dead with singing and dancing. There is often also a hazing ceremony for new members of the dance troups, a visit to the jail and a hilarious parody of a trial of "Siclla Wayra." A procession in the afternoon ends at the bridge of Carlos III, where the “Virgen del Carmen” blesses the four cardinal points. After the procession the population goes to the plaza to witness the traditional guerrilla warfare between the "Q'ollas" and "Chunchos," which represents the struggle for possession of the “Virgen del Carmen”. And watch out for the "Waka Waka" or bull…!

Finally the “Virgen del Carmen” is placed back in front of the church where the traditional "ocarikuy" is held, representing the blessing of children by the priest. This culminates in the general blessing of everyone attending the festival, and more dancing late into the night.

Monday, July 18 will be the day of departure or "Kacharpari." At this last mass the priest blesses those who will be stewards or "carguyoc" at the following years’ festivities, and it is time to say goodbye everyone until next year.

Another event worth mentioning is that almost everyone will make the trip to a place called “Tres Cruces”, a couple of hours away from Paucartambo down a bone-shaking road. Tres Cruces sits on the very lip of the eastern slope of the Andes, so you look down from it into the Amazon. The sun rises out of the frothing cloudy bowl where all the moisture of the Amazon rainforest gets trapped against the side of the Andes, and the resulting humidity makes for spectacular optical illusions which vary every day; the sun variously trembles, wheels and spits, and sometimes produces all kinds of different colors. Unbelievable, and very memorable!’

Wow, that sounds amazing! Where do you recommend we stay?

The worst part of the festival is the lack of accommodations. Paucartambo is actually a sleepy little village with not much happening during the rest of the year. It’s three or four hotels quickly fill up, and there are not enough places for visitors to stay even though most families in Paucartambo will house as many visitors as they can. I recommend you book your accommodations far in advance!

Marie Meyer

It took almost 15 years, but I made it back to Peru. And this time not only as a tourist, but with a husband and kids in tow, and here to stay for years. I am looking forward to learning the art of living in Peru.

Please email me at with your comments and suggestions.

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